To coincide with the exhibition Star Voyager: Exploring Space on Screen, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) presents Fantastic Journeys: Space on Film, a diverse film program spanning sci-fi classics to rarely seen documentaries, opening 27 December 2011.
The season will feature an exclusive Australian season of Geoff Marslett’s animated slacker comedy, Mars (2010).
“Cinema has been in thrall of space travel ever since Georges Méliès took his first Trip to the Moon. Fantastic Journeys is a celebration of these fantastic celluloid journeys, the men and women who have pioneered space exploration and how the quest to explore the mysteries of our galaxy has colonised our imagination,” says ACMI Film Programmer Spiro Economopoulos.
The season opens with Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which takes us from the beginning of life on earth to beyond the far reaches of the galaxy, with space travel ultimately becoming an extension of humankind’s search for the meaning of our existence. Lauded as a triumph of cinema, with incredible futuristic space design, the special effects by Kubrick and photographic effects by Douglas Trumbull set the benchmark for science fiction films to come, influencing several of the films within this program.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Solyaris), is a philosophical science fiction film billed as the Russian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Solaris takes place on a space station orbiting around the mysterious planet Solaris. Tarkovsky inverts the familiar tropes of the sci-fi genre by exploring the notion of space as more of an interior location that exists within his characters’ increasingly fragile minds.
Earth’s endangered environment has been rich story material for science fiction films over the years and three films within this season take up the theme. For Silent Running (1972), Douglas Trumbull (a special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey), directs an environmentally themed sci-fi film which pleads for the protection of earth’s natural resources.
Also environmentally concerned is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) follows the misadventures of a group of scientists travelling on board the spaceship ‘Icarus II’ who have been entrusted to reignite our dying sun by launching a thermonuclear device into its heart.
Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) explores the ethical ramifications of private corporations extending their influence beyond our earth. Sam Rockwell stars as a lone mine worker contracted by Lunar Industries to extract the moon’s rich energy source, Helium-3, which has become the primary source of earth’s depleted energy supply – thus opening the film up to a wider context about earth’s tentative environmental future. Yet another film to be influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon is decidedly retro in design and the urbane sounding computer GERTY, voiced with deadpan precision by Kevin Spacey, pays homage to Kubrick’s film.
Dark Star (1974, dir. John Carpenter) is a bona fide cult classic. An offbeat mix of sci-fi and comedy, Dark Star begins 20 years into a tour of duty by a small demolition crew who, accompanied only by their growing boredom, cryogenically frozen captain and a pet alien, travel around space blowing up unstable planets – until disaster strikes.
Ridley Scott’s terrifying science fiction film Alien (1979) is an achievement in production design and visual effects. In this season ACMI will screen the Director’s Cut. Essentially a haunted house film set in space, Alien takes place aboard a commercial mining spaceship. When a stowaway alien is inadvertently smuggled onboard (its first appearance providing one of the classic “fright” moments in cinema), the ship’s dark, cramped corridors become a labyrinth of fear and dread.
The Right Stuff (1983, dir. Philip Kaufman) is a spirited and rousing tribute to the men (and their wives) who took death-defying risks in the name of adventure and the dream to be the first men in space. Based on Tom Wolfe’s thrilling history of the US space program, The Right Stuff begins with legendary ace pilot Chuck Yeager’s (Sam Shepard) attempts at breaking the sound barrier and then traces the journey of the seven astronauts selected to man the first rocket flight into space. Kaufman highlights just how dangerous it is to propel a man into orbit at such an accelerated rate and the body count amongst the initial test pilots shines a sobering light on the sacrifices these men make to be counted as that special breed that do indeed have the right stuff. Yet, the media circus that surrounds this very public space race against the Soviets becomes a bracing satire on the art of media spin and what it really takes to become a hero.
This season is also a rare opportunity to see The Silent Star (Der schweigende stern) (1960, dir. Kurt Maetzig), the first science fiction film to be made in East Germany, featuring special effects by Ernst Kunstmann who worked on the visual effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The Silent Star is set in the era of the great space race and warns of the dangers of nuclear warfare. When a mysterious object from space is discovered in the Gobi Desert, an expedition is dispatched to Venus to decipher the message it contains. What they discover is a declaration of war on Earth.
Fantastic Journeys will also feature an exclusive Australian season of animated slacker comedy, Mars (2010). Director Geoff Marslett’s playful hipster odyssey tracks the race between an international team of astronauts and an unlikely trio of deadpan slackers as they compete to travel to the red planet. The film’s offbeat world view is capped off by some wonderfully strange touches, like a cowboy president played by Texan country music star Kinky Friedman and a pair of hipster clones who are covering the space race for an MTV-like program, offering a running commentary of the romantic developments between the crew. Blending hand-drawn, 3D and rotoscope animation and a score from indie-rock singer-songwriter Howe Gelb, Mars also features Mark Duplass, a veteran of mumblecore features such as Puffy Chair (2005) and Humpday (2009) riffing on his affable, slacker persona as he becomes the film’s reluctant hero. Mars will enjoy ten screenings as part of its special place in this season.
Pixar’s Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton) is a perfect blend of slapstick humour, dystopian sci-fi and heartfelt romance. Its lovable title character is effectively an amalgam of various film robots and some of Hollywood’s most iconic silent comedy stars. Wall-E has been left behind on a long abandoned Earth to clean up humanity’s rubbish. His discovery of a single, healthy looking plant in this otherwise barren land coincides with the arrival of a sleek looking robot probe called EVE and an unlikely romance blossoms. This outstanding animation is taken to another level as team Pixar offer a bleak future vision of our waste-ravaged world and a glimpse of outer space that is simply sublime.
Three striking documentaries feature in this season.
For All Mankind (1989) documents the nine NASA Apollo moon missions between 1968 and 1972. Director Al Reinert manages to achieve something Hollywood has spent millions of dollars trying to replicate: the wonder and beauty of space. Reinert exhaustively gleaned through millions of feet of film to capture these epic journeys into one thrilling trip to the moon. In compiling the various missions into one single trip, the film’s cacophony of images and anonymous voices meld into one unifying voice, ultimately documenting not just one country’s quest, but, literally, a quest for all mankind. Brian Eno’s seminal score adds to the film’s ethereal beauty.
The age-old dream of the ordinary citizen leaving the earth’s orbit and exploring space is fast becoming a reality. In the documentary Space Tourists (2009), Christian Frei follows self-made billionaire Anousheh Ansari, as she fulfils her childhood dream and becomes the world’s first female space tourist (price tag: US$20 million). Frei cuts between this Iranian-American woman’s incredible journey and a group of Kazakh scrap metal collectors who travel around the Kazakhstan deserts on the hunt for precious ‘space junk’, fallen to earth from various space rocket flights. The awe inspiring beauty of Ansari’s journey is wildly contrasted with the surreal scavenger hunt that has become the livelihood of these desert nomads. Underscoring the film’s arresting images is the soundtrack by Russian composer Edward Artemyev, whose compositions grace Tarkovsky’s sci-fi films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).
Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz) (2010) takes place in one of the driest places on earth – the Atacama Desert in Chile. Its translucent skies make it an ideal place for astronomers, while widows of the ‘disappeared’ comb the desert searching for remains of loved ones taken during the brutal Pinochet regime (the dryness of the air means that human remains can be found virtually intact). The astronomer’s celestial quest to reach beyond the stars is movingly melded with these women’s earthly odyssey for truth and reconciliation. Director Patricio Guzmán’s stunning documentary makes great use of the awe inspiring beauty of the skies above this barren earth, delivering remarkable footage of the swirling milky way that illuminates the horrible history lying beneath the desert.
A cinematic journey to the dark side of the moon and beyond, Fantastic Journeys: Space on Film is part of ACMI’s our celebration of space and the moving image. The film program runs Tuesday 27 December 2011 to Sunday 22 January 2012. ACMI’s Star Voyager: Exploring Space on Screen exhibition runs until 29 January 2012.